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Kwame Brathwaite, Untitled (Garvey Day, Deedee in Car), ca.  1965/2018, archival pigment print.

Kwame Brathwaite, Untitled (Garvey Day, Deedee in Car), California. 1965/2018, archival pigment print.

KWAME BRATHWAITE WAS FAMILY! He taught me the possibilities of photography and what it means to document daily life in Harlem. The last time I saw Kwame was at Melba’s Restaurant on a Sunday afternoon with his family. All the people from the church were there. He and his wife greeted me as they always do with a welcoming smile. Kwame’s warmth and compassion for the community guided me to a phrase I often invoke: “Art teaches us that lives other than our own are valuable.”

In 1969 I moved from Philadelphia to New York to study at the Germain School of Photography in Lower Manhattan. The first photographer I met in town was Kwame Brathwaite at a political rally at the Countee Cullen Library on West 136th Street. I was surprised and honored to see him with other black activists whom I heard speak at conferences in Philadelphia, listened to on the radio, saw on television and read about in the newspapers. I knew his name because he and his brother, Elombe Brath, helped organize the “Naturally” fashion shows where the models wore afro hairstyles, which I wore proudly at the time. My mother had a salon and often traveled to New York to see beauty pageants. Kwame was at the rally to take pictures. I still remember the kindness of his silent greeting when I told him I was in New York to practice photography and his smile as he turned away and continued to capture the room through his lens. The late Queen Mother Moore was also in attendance and she was getting lots of love from young campaigners who had traveled far and wide to attend the meeting. Queen Mother Moore was a Louisiana-born black nationalist, a Garveyite who remains memorable to me as she shared her perspective on reparations at this gathering.

In 1968, Kwame traveled to document political and cultural movements alongside daily life in West and East Africa. A photo report of this trip was televised on WABC’s “Like It Is” show with Gil Noble. I remember this segment with great pride. It was Kwame’s stories that encouraged me to take a trip to Ghana in 1970. Over the next decade he covered protests and events in the United States and Africa, such as the funeral of Kwame Nkrumah , the Ali-Foreman heavyweight championship fight in Zaire and the Wattstax benefit concert. I wanted to include his beauty salon portraits in a book I was writing about black photographers, but he insisted that I use a portrait of Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara, a pan-Africanist and president of Burkina Faso, instead. At the time, I didn’t know how important Sankara was for the liberation movements. I learned from Kwame that he was known as “Africa’s Che!” After years of seeing him at Harlem rallies and art conferences, we continued to share stories of our life in photography. We often met at the Studio Museum in Harlem and attended local exhibits at the Harlem State Office Building Gallery. We reconnected in 1980 when Kwame invited me to participate in events organized by the National Conference of Artists.

Kwame’s photographs document empowerment activism and continue to affirm an unwavering commitment to Africa’s political movements, aesthetics and culture. The impact of seeing his photographs of black women on popular album covers has broadened consumer consciousness and reflected a changing society that has informed us that “black is beautiful” and beauty is power through life. goal of Kwame Brathwaite.

Deborah Willis is a New York-based artist, writer, and curator.

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